Tucker Carlson might not survive at Fox News — here's why
Ranting that he'd never give in to "the mob," Fox News' Tucker Carlson last night angrily responded to recently unearthed audio clips of him uttering jaw-dropping, hateful commentary during radio interviews that he regularly gave over a five-year period.
Deeply homophobic, xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic, Carlson sounded more like a white nationalist podcaster than the host of a popular cable television channel that he is today. Aside from appearing to defend a child-rapist and underage marriage, Carlson belittled Iraq as “crappy place filled with a bunch of, you know, semiliterate primitive monkeys,” and mocked Barack Obama's heritage: “I don’t know how black he is, but I’m sure he’s a good basketball player—he says he is, anyway.”
Tucker often appeared on the Bubba the Love Sponge radio show between 2006 and 2011. The tapes have sparked the latest uproar over Carlson's Fox News show, which is known for its racist and hateful content—and now, advertisers are taking note. On Monday, the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca became the first major advertiser to announce it's dropping Carlson’s show following the release of the old radio recordings. Pressure will mount from activists for other advertisers to follow.
We've definitely seen this scenario play out before. Sometimes Fox News hosts survive the boycotts, as Laura Ingraham did last year after she sparked nationwide fury when she took to Twitter to mock a Parkland, Florida, school shooting survivor for not getting accepted into his top-choice colleges. (Who does that?) But sometimes hosts don't survive, like former Fox News stars Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. Both talkers and their highly rated shows were canceled when the network could no longer monetize their ratings after so many advertisers had fled.
As of right now, Carlson may be heading for the Beck/O'Reilly dustbin of cable news history, and here's why.
Carlson's advertising roster was already depleted when dozens of Madison Avenue clients bolted from his show late in 2018 after he began airing wild, unhinged rants about immigrants, wrapped in his embrace of white nationalist rhetoric (e.g., immigrants make the U.S. "poorer and dirtier"). He followed that up in January by announcing that women earning more money than men do leads to “more drug and alcohol abuse, [and] higher incarceration rates.” (It does not.)
Top-tier advertisers such as Red Lobster, IHOP, Samsung, Jaguar Land Rover, Just For Men, Nautilus, Bowflex, SanDisk, and SodaStream all made it clear they wanted nothing to do with Carlson's hate show. Prior to his anti-immigrant rants, Carlson's program regularly featured nearly 40 commercials per episode. By late December, that number had fallen to 21. Why? Not enough advertisers to fill the slots. "Most noticeably, the show has generally pared back from five standard advertisement breaks to four, and has leaned far more heavily on so-called house ads that promote Fox News programming and Fox Broadcasting Company scripted television shows," the Hollywood Reporter noted.
That means Carlson's roster of advertisers was already dangerously thin before we found out he used to go on the radio to defend a child-rapist and wonder aloud if Obama was really black. ("How is he black, for one thing? He has one white parent, one black parent.") On Monday night's program, Carlson's show featured just one national advertiser, Bayer. The rest of the spots on his show were filled with direct-marketing companies and in-house promos for Fox News.
Here's the thing about the television business: Ratings are great, but they're also worthless if you can't monetize them. What's the point of having an audience of 3 million viewers, as Carlson often does, if Fox News can't turn that into revenue by selling advertising airtime on his show at a premium? If advertisers are fleeing and the channel's sales team can't fill the ad spots, Fox News is losing money. And if the channel has to offer deep discounts in order to land new advertisers willing to appears on Carlson's show, Fox News is effectively losing money.
The company can certainly shoulder that load for a week or so. But in terms of it becoming a permanent situation, why would Rupert Murdoch's media company want to treat Carlson's show as a charity, when a different host would likely be able to bring back all those advertisers?
Indeed, Carlson is easily replaceable. The irony is, he only has a primetime job because Fox pushed out O’Reilly and handed Carlson the 8 PM time slot. He suffered a slight drop-off from O'Reilly's ratings, but basically Fox News can replace Carlson with another host, and roughly 3 million people will tune in.
On Monday Carlson bragged, "Fox News is behind us, as they have been since the very first day." Note that Beck and O'Reilly also insisted Fox News was going to stand by them—until it didn't. It's possible that in this hyperpolarized Trump era, Fox News will decide it's willing to keep Carlson on and lose millions in advertising revenue in the process in order not to suffer another programming loss at the hands of activists urging boycotts. It's also possible his days are numbered.
Oh, yeah, and another reason Carlson might not survive? There are more tapes to come.
Eric Boehlert is a veteran progressive writer and media analyst, formerly with Media Matters and Salon. He is the author of Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush and Bloggers on the Bus. You can follow him on Twitter @EricBoehlert.